Learning from Legends: Jud Heathcote

Jud HeathcoteMost of you will well remember Coach Jud Heathcote, who coached the Michigan State Spartans, led by Magic Johnson to the 1979 NCAA championship over the Larry Bird led, up-to-  then undefeated Indiana St. Sycamores. Most of you are also likely aware that game was such a huge TV ratings success, that interest and economic implication propelled the NCAA tournament into the huge expansion and success it enjoys today.

What most of you probably don’t recall was that MSU team, after entering the Big Ten season as the Number #1 team in the country and winning their first two conference games, lost four of their next six games-including a monumental upset by the Northwestern Wildcats, and stood 4-4 in the conference-4 games back of the Ohio St. Buckeyes.

The criticism, for that era, was intense.  Magic Johnson and Coach Heathcote were both skewered with second-guessing of all sorts.  But, in typical fashion utilizing his sharp sense of humor, Jud deflected some of the heat on his radio show by saying, “I’ve only received one letter demanding my resignation.  Unfortunately, it was signed by 10,000 people.”

For the record, MSU won 9 of their last 10 and finished in a 3-way tie for the Big Ten championship and received the automatic bid and the rest is history.  There are observers of that team who claim that Coach Heathcote’s adjustment of giving Magic more offensive freedom was the real key to the turnaround.

What other nuggets can we derive from Coach Heathcote’s distinguished career? Among the many which defined his essence, here are some of the more notable:

  • Coach paid his dues.  14 years as a high school coach and seven years as an assistant at Washington St.- 5 as the freshman coach-before he was hired as the Head Coach at Montana, where he coached the enigmatic Michael Ray Richardson.  Just one other note from his Montana stint, in 1975, the Grizzlies lost to eventual NCAA champs, UCLA, 67-64 in the Sweet 16. The Bruins had 6 players go on to the NBA. Montana’s best player, Eric Hays, was a 6-3 forward who scored 32 points in that game and was drafted in the NBA’s ninth round.
  • Jud’s teams were often lauded for his 2-3 zone.  He taught it as well as anyone ever has.
  • He implemented many sets and plays.  His bag of tricks was immense and diverse.  They were a tough prep.
  • Coach was innovative.  He used a very effective off-set, man-to-man offensive alignment, I haven’t seen before or since.
  • Besides his great sense of humor, Jud was engaging otherwise.  He was both a coach’s coach and a player’s coach.
  • He was an ambassador of the game and served in many NABC capacities over the years.
  • Coach Heathcote had a great basketball memory and was well versed in the history of the game.
  • He had a way of getting to the point quickly and with an economy of words.
  • Coach Heathcote’s impact on the game has been profound.  His coaching tree includes no fewer than 15 former players and assistants that have coached at high levels, including Tom Izzo, Scott Skiles, Tom Crean and Kelvin Thompson.
  • Jud passed away in August of 2017 at 90.  Right to the end, he acted as the great mentor he always was, periodically meeting with Gonzaga’s Coach Few and sharing basketball thoughts.


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